“Pottage is not so much used in all Christendom as it is used in England”– Andrew Boorde, Dyetary (I542)
Pottage in England, came from the Old French pottage, meaning simply ‘potted dish’. I’m not sure how extensively Mr. Boorde had travelled in Ireland, but here it was craibechan for a stew and anraith for a soup, while porridge was leite, and any of them could be made in the same ‘potted dish’ method.
We’re talking one pot peasant food here, the type that starts with a single pot over an open fire, with anything that is to hand thrown in, and cooked for hours til it’s reduced to mush. The next day more water is added, more of whatever’s handy, and more mush ensues. In fairness, it’s tasty, tasty mush, and this type of soup or stew is still eaten in Ireland, and there’s never a truer word spoken than when someone smacks their lips, pats their belly, and says “It always tastes better the next day”.
This was a staple all through Europe, probably from Neolithic times at least, but definitely through the Middle Ages, because we’ve got the references and recipes to prove it.
There are records from the English Beaulieu Abbey, in I270, specifying daily allowances for the lay gardeners: “a convent loaf, a gallon of good ale, and four bowlfuls of the convent pottage”. There is a line in ‘Piers Plowman’ (c. 1377) which says: “Had ye pottage and pain (bread) enough, and penny-ale to drink . . . ye had right enough”. And in the 1500’s, the Fromond list of ‘Herbys necessary for a gardyn’ included no less than 49 herbs deemed suitable for pottage.
To make the pottage, the large metal pot or cauldron was hung over the hearthfire, filled with water or the stock from boiled meat, fish or foul, as available, and various other items added. John Harvey (Vegetables in the Middle Ages) details:
“It is various species of herbs that are consistently mentioned as ‘good pottagers’. In the pottage (‘porray’ or ‘sewe’) were usually cooked one or more of several vegetable foodstuffs, notably the leaves of colewort (Brassica oleracea), leeks (Allium porrum), both of them grown in the garden; or the field crops peas (Pisum sativum) and broad beans (Vicia faba).”(Harvey)
He references a Friar Henry Daniel, who frequently comments on ‘good pottagers’, e.g. borage (Borago officinalis), chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), mallows (edible Malvaceae), several forms of orach (edible Atriplex), and turnip (Brassica rapa).
The cabbage and it’s cousins (Brassicae) frequently appear under various names such as Cale, Kale, Wild Cabbage, Colewort, Worts, Worties and Braisech in Irish. It’s interesting to note that Langland’s first version of Piers Plowman, written about I362, says; “I have porrets (young leeks) and parsley and many cole plants”, while in the version from about thirty years after we see what might indicate a diversification in the diet (or a move up in the author’s social status?), with the line changed to; “And I have porret plants, parsley and scallions; Chibols and chervils, and cherries”. Cherries, if you don’t mind!
In England the most common pottage flavouring was certainly Parsley (Petroselinum crispum), which carries not only huge health benefits, but also a stack of Medieval lore and superstition round it. In Ireland the Nettle (Urtica dioica) was most common and used regularly for its tremendous health benefits. That bit (health benefits) is, admittedly, supposition on my part, because Nettles taste of very little – other than slightly metallic and a little rank if you don’t get the fresh young tops. So I reckon the popularity must be attributed to medicinal rather than culinary value.
Wild Garlic (Ramsons, Allium ursinum or Creamh in Irish) on the other hand tastes divine. There’s little evidence of cultivation in Ireland, but sure there was no need to. Wild Garlic grows best in damp woodland areas and, well, that was most of Ireland. PW Joyce noted in 1906 that it was a common pot-herb, saying: “The facts that it is often mentioned in Irish literature, and that it has given names to many places, show that it was a well-recognised plant and pretty generally used”.
A recipe for this one really isn’t necessary. It depends on what you have available that was common in the Medieval country of your choice. Start with a stock or broth, add in some chopped meat (beef, mutton, pork, goat, venison, chicken, goose or duck – take your pick!) for a higher status feed. Finely chop some cabbage or kale, onions, leeks, wild garlic. A bit of turnip and a few peas or broad beans wouldn’t go amiss. If you’re going very posh you could add pepper, ground coriander or cardamom. Sage, rosemary and thyme were common enough though, so feel free to throw those in to taste, then some parsley or nettle tops, and let it boil softly for a few hours.
Try it with authentic Irish Soda Bread, but most importantly… don’t forget that it always tastes better the next day!
‘Worties’ was the common name in Ireland, from the English ‘wortes’, which were vegetable greens and members of the onion family, such as cabbage leaves, spinach, beet greens, leeks, wild garlic leaves and so on, as well as some of the leafy herbs used for seasonings, like borage, parsley, and sage.
When cooked together with butter, and the leftover bread added to soften and soak up the flavoured butter, a delicious mess of goodness is created, and this we still call Worties.
Believe it or not, this was a very popular dish at our living history re-enactments, particularly with the kids! They just can’t get enough of it, even the ones whose parents swear they wouldn’t let a green leaf touch their lips at home. I guess when you cook anything in enough butter it’s going to taste good.
From England in the 1400s, we see the description of “A Dish of Cooked Greens”. The original recipe runs like this:
“Buttered Wortes. Take al manor of good herbes that thou may gete, and do bi ham as is forsaid; putte hem on þe fire with faire water; put þer-to clarefied buttur a grete quantite. Whan thei ben boyled ynough, salt hem; late none otemele come ther-in. Dise brede small in disshes, and powre on þe wortes, and serue hem forth.”
(by Thomas Austin, from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books: Harleian MS. 279 & Harl. MS. 4016)
In other words, it can be read:
Our recipe uses 2 sweetheart cabbages, shredded or chopped to bite-size pieces, and a whole bulb of garlic, with each clove peeled and finely chopped. We get a large pot over an open fire (but your stove top will do just fine), melt a block of butter (about a lb) in there, and add the garlic to simmer. Throw in the cabbage, and sure if you’ve any other stray green leaves to use up you can toss them in there too. You could season with a little salt, but unless your butter is unsalted to start with, the extra is not really necessary.
Once the greens are softening but not mushy, we’d take a whole loaf of bread, break or chop it up, take the pot of greens off the heat and stir the bread right in with them. Tip it all out into a big serving bowl, or individual portions, and you’re done.
I should probably note a few things:
Worties would have been served as a side for meats in a main meal, and as a lunchtime or even breakfast meal to use up the previous day’s bread.
Indeed, there’s many a working man and woman who was coming home to some variation of the Worties dish after a hard day’s work in Ireland right up til the 1900s, and I’m sure it’s served up on Irish lunch and dinner tables even to this day!
There you go, that’s your Irish soda bread recipe.
Ok, so there MIGHT be a bit more to it than that, but seriously like, nothing a few practice runs won’t sort out. (Gluten Free flour works grand too, btw, just swap in a quality self raising kind for regular flour)
Here’s the science bit. I never took a science class in my life mind you, so perhaps this is a garbled science bit. Please keep that in mind.
Soda bread has no yeast (you may know that already), so it needs an alkaline raising agent (bread/baking soda) with an acidic liquid (buttermilk). Sour milk will also work, especially if you throw in some lemon juice too.
You’ll need strong plain flour – a mix of wholemeal and white is good, but either is fine – and it’s a general rule of about 1 rounded teaspoon of soda per 1lb of flour. Mix em well, and make sure the soda is fresh, not the tub that’s been sitting in your press for 5 years.
Sieve the dry stuff together in a big bowl, and then add the buttermilk slowly til you have a squishy consistency, then slop it out on the bench (flour the surface first so it doesn’t stick) and bash away at it til it’s kneaded through, a little elasticy in texture and dry to the touch.
(For a sweet loaf, add sugar and sultanas with the dry ingredients, even a little cinnamon.)
Then roll it into a smooth round ball, flatten the top and bottom a bit, and take a sharp knife to score a cross in the top, deepest in the middle section, lighter at the edges.
Stick it onto a flat tray, and into the oven (about gas 4 or 5). Check after half hour by sticking a sharp knife or skewer in the middle; if it’s not covered in dough then it’s definitely getting there. Take it out before it burns.
There ya go.
Leave to cool, some say leave overnight for a better flavour. I can never wait that long. Serve with real Irish butter, where available – definitely none of that plastic margarine shit anyway.